I think religiosity is an intrinsic part of being human and is also perhaps the most unique of human characteristics. We can get a feel for just how common this trait is by noting the religious behavior of secular atheists, people who are supposed to be non-religious. Since they deny the existence of God, some other aspect of life fills that vacuum. A common avenue is political ideology, where many secular atheists become extreme, political zealots, viewing their ideology as The One True Way while demonizing all who oppose them. History shows us how this dynamic was carried it to its logical end in the Soviet Union, where the secular ideology of Communism was forcefully imposed on millions of people.
Today, the New Atheist Movement has made the religious dimension of atheism all the more obvious. From an intellectual perspective, there is no such thing as good and evil if atheism is true. Nevertheless, New Atheists are very, very, very comfortable labeling religion as evil. As Jerry Coyne once wrote, ” Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion.” With their intellect, they deny the existence of evil, but their human nature takes over when describing their perceived enemies.
There is also a distinct puritanism to be found in New Atheism.
The New Atheists view themselves as saviors, thinking that if only they can convert most people to atheism, the world would be a much, much better place. It is faith in a Better Future that is supposed to be purchased through proselytizing and shaming. One of their leaders, Peter Boghossian, even wrote a manual to teach followers how to help convert people to atheism. In fact, each year, New Atheist leaders publish new books. Even though the books rarely break any new ground, they are bought up religiously by New Atheist acolytes who apparently think that with each new book on his/her shelf, they are one step closer to Gnutopia. And if all of this was not religious enough, New Atheists have shown themselves more than willing to viciously attack other atheists and agnostics who don’t agree with the militant anti-religious agenda. Puritanism, plain and obvious for all to see.
Then there is the Great Schism. Mimicking countless religions before them, the New Atheists bitterly split into two camps because of something that happened in an elevator – a young male atheist asked a young female atheist back to his room late at night. This event brought into view two contrasting notions of how atheists should live. One side championed hedonism while the other side championed extreme feminism. To this day, the two camps still make war with each other, such that people like Sam Harris and PZ Myers, once close allies in the fight against the evils of religion, and both who claim to be experts with Reason and Evidence, now attack each other on a fairly regular basis. The only thing that could ever hope to bring the two sides together again would be a Common Enemy who appeared to pose an existential threat.
Finally, we have Sam Harris, whose leadership among the New Atheists is second only to Richard Dawkins. Harris has spent his life trying to carve out a niche for atheist religiosity. First, he got many of his followers to buy into the notion that science can be the source of our moral code. In essence, he claims to have the secular, atheistic version of the Ten Commandments. Second, he is currently softening up the New Atheists by co-opting the term spirituality and creating a safe space for atheist spirituality. Such spirituality turns out to be meditation and the consumption of mind-altering drugs. Harris not only teaches people how to meditate, but he preaches that such practice is the way to Find the Truth.
And that brings us to the most recent event. Back on Oct 6, 2015, Harris announced that he has become a vegetarian, perhaps a vegan, for moral reasons. What’s striking here is not only the continual unfolding of Harris as Gnu-ru, but that with this step, Harris is millimeters away from becoming a religious zealot himself. For the vegan community is not only religious, but is cult-like in its religiosity.
If Harris can make the transformation, and resist the temptation for a steak dinner, I think we might see the next topic for his next book. Harris is running out of new material to write about and the attempt to convert other atheists to his newly rediscovered veganism might be just the new market for Harris to tap into. After all, there is already atheistic noise out there about the hypocrisy of the meat-eating atheists.
The poster-boys and girls of atheism, secularism, science and reason have done wonders for so many domains of public discourse. Whilst they fittingly weigh in on many moral questions not just restricted to religious indoctrination and its impact on human rights, animal rights has so far garnered little attention. However, the great thing about reason is that it is a tool.
Reason does not presuppose its answers in advance, but is rather a process by which conclusions germinate under the light of the best available evidence.
The best available evidence currently shows that eating meat and animal products is bad for animals, our health and the environment. Many of the New-Atheists and their associated colleagues have realised this, they just need to come forth into the light.
Watching the atheist movement evolve before our eyes is actually quite fascinating. Having thrown off the yoke of Christianity, modern atheism appears to be on a path to develop its own brand of Old Testament religiosity. Having convinced themselves they are the Champions of Science and Reason, the New Atheists see themselves as history’s chosen people who are currently in a crucial battle with the forces of darkness – the religious. Better yet are the developing Codes of Conduct reminiscent of Old Testaments laws. In the area of sexuality, it remains to be seen whether the Code will reflect old fashioned pagan hedonism or the hyper-puritanical standards of the extreme feminists. I expect the latter to win out, giving rise to some form of legalistic, politically-correct controlled expressions of hedonism. The whole issue of food is even more interesting, for veganism is clearly a return to morally-based dietary restrictions.